One of the things that makes college sports so special is the names.
Not just the Horned Frogs and the Thundering Herd and the Banana Slugs, but the players themselves.
UCLA had a fun one in 2009 with Kevin Prince, the freshman Prince of Bel-Air.
But the Bruins’ opponent in Saturday’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl boasts perhaps the most appropriate name in all of college football.
“Pretty much, I played up to my name,” said the Illinois junior defensive end. “Going through this whole season, I can step back and say all the hard work I put in got me here. I would say, yeah, I’m a pretty good player.”
Pretty good isn’t a nation-leading 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. Pretty good isn’t a head slap that would make Deacon Jones smile and a stutter-step to rival Allen Iverson’s. Pretty good isn’t what is keeping Brett Downey up at night.
The UCLA junior offensive tackle will get his first start on Saturday in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with the Bruins’ offensive line in tatters.
“I’ve been hoping for a start ever since I got here,” Downey said. “The fact it’s a bowl game just doubles how intense it is. I’m going up against a really good defensive end – he’s quite good, an all-American – so I’ve been watching a lot of film on him. It’s going to be tough, but I’m up for the challenge.”
The former walk-on ascended to the first unit after sophomore guard Alberto Cid was deemed academically ineligible. With sophomore Chris Ward (knee) and freshman Wade Yandall (head) out for the game and leaving a glaring gap at guard, junior Jeff Baca slides inside, and that leaves Downey and senior Mike Harris to handle Mercilus.
“We gave him a lot of reps during spring and during fall camp, and it pays off,” offensive line coach Bob Palcic said. “Now I really need those guys to be ready to go into the game.”
Mercilus is not going to make it easy.
The junior out of Akron, Ohio, was a lightly regarded recruit out of high school, and his early production gave little indication to the monster he’d become this season. Mercilus had one sack as a redshirt freshman in 2009 and added another last season.
After two sacks in a Week 3 17-14 win over Arizona State, he’d already eclipsed his career total. Over the next eight weeks, he added 10.5 more – going sack-less just once, on Oct. 22 against Purdue – while also forcing fumble after fumble.
And while staying humble.
“Off the field, I would like to think I’m a nice guy,” Mercilus said. “But when I’m on the field, I get a different persona, a different personality. These guys out here are looking to hurt you, to put you on the ground. That’s something you can’t take.”
Sounds about right.